What Exactly Is The Autism Spectrum?

Everybody Knows Someone

It seems as if everyone knows someone who is ‘on the spectrum, the general idea of the autism spectrum, if not an actual diagnosis.

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“Autism” may be a widely used term for those with social and communication difficulties, but it’s certainly not all-encompassing; those on the autism spectrum have a wide range of differences in social, cognitive, and sensory processes.

Three Key Elements

In this article, I will be looking at the three key elements which make up the autism spectrum: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger Syndrome, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Autism Spectrum Disorder

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in impaired social interaction and communication and unusual or repetitive behaviors.

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The diagnostic criteria require that the individual demonstrates impairment in social interaction, has restricted or repetitive behaviors/interests, shows evidence of sensory sensitivities, and has evidence of abnormal development before age three. The core symptom for ASD is impaired social interaction, including lack of appropriate eye contact, poor awareness or engagement with others, and difficulty starting/maintaining conversations.

People on the autism spectrum also often have trouble with verbal language (both understanding what is said to them and using spoken language to express their thoughts), nonverbal communication (facial expressions, body position, etc.), reading social cues, or sensing other people’s feelings or intents—in fact, it has been said that people with autism have trouble “reading between the lines.”

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       In addition, some people on the spectrum may be challenged by executive function—the ability to plan and organize thoughts into manageable steps. This can result in difficulty organizing daily activities or routines.

          People on the autism spectrum might also demonstrate a few special abilities, such as memorizing trivia and complex trains of thought. For example, the late Professor Stephen Hawking (diagnosed with ASD at age 21; he passed away in 2018) was an author, physicist, cosmologist and considered to be one of the finest scientific minds of his generation.

Asperger Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a form of autism in which the person with AS has normal intelligence and verbal language but trouble with social interactions.

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While people with Asperger’s may find it difficult to ‘read’ other people or gauge their feelings and reactions, they generally do not have major difficulties with language, and speech is normal (although there may be a slight delay in language development).

       It’s very common for people with Asperger’s to be preoccupied with special interests, which are frequently about numbers, patterns, or unusual facts. They may have a very literal understanding of language and take things literally that is said to them—they also tend to have difficulty expressing their own thoughts and feelings in an appropriate way.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is an umbrella term that refers to a neurological condition in which the signals sent from the body’s senses are not interpreted correctly by the brain. While this can be a problem for all five of the body’s senses, it most commonly affects how a person processes information received through their sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound.

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Those with SPD can have heightened sensitivity to stimuli, or they might be under-sensitive or under-responsive to certain types of stimuli. For example, a person with SPD may have trouble discriminating different textures in clothing or being able to tell where their body is in space. They might also have problems processing information that they receive through their senses—for example, having difficulty understanding what they see and hear.

Some people with SPD are hypersensitive to stimuli while others are hyposensitive—it all depends on how the person’s brain processes sensory information.

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       People with SPD tend to crave sensory stimulation or ‘rich’ experiences; they may also become distressed when exposed to certain types of stimuli. Many people with SPD find it helpful to have a range of strategies that they can employ when they are in situations where sensory processing is difficult for them.

An Umbrella Term

Whilst autism is most commonly thought of as a condition that affects people’s ability to communicate with others, it has been described as an umbrella term that also covers a range of related developmental disorders.

Along with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder can be classified into three other subtypes:

Classic Autism

Where the child or adult has all the hallmarks of autism – including problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Rett Syndrome

Where typically girls are significantly affected by autism, with the onset of symptoms usually between six to 18 months of age. Girls with Rett syndrome develop severe problems in their ability to use hand movements for gesturing, pointing, or reaching, as well as impairment in using their arms for grasping or bringing objects to their mouth.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

This is a very rare form of autism, where children have normally been developing until they experience a ‘delayed’ regression in behavior and social interaction when they are between two and ten years old.

Cause Unknown

The exact cause for autism remains unknown, but there is strong evidence to suggest that it can run in families and that there may be a genetic predisposition for autism.

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